By Coleen Dee Berry

Yunuet Laguna, a soprano, received the gift of a coffee mug emblazoned with Met Opera from a student who had just returned from visiting New York City. “The Met was amazing!” the student told her. “I hope you can go there for a visit someday.”

Laguna, who had just completed studying opera at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música of Mexico, wanted to do more than visit New York’s renowned Metropolitan Opera House. She dreamed of singing there. But, “I didn’t have enough money to even apply to get a visa,” she said. “So, I thought this coffee mug was probably the closest I was going to get to the Met.”

That was before she met Joan Max Mitchell ’63.

Yunuet Laguna performs in January 2019.

In July 2018, Laguna sang at an Instituto de Bel Canto opera concert in the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende, where Mitchell had been residing since 2012. Ever a champion of the arts, Mitchell was now the director of the Mexico District of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and was in the midst of organizing the district’s first audition of young Mexican singers. After hearing Laguna sing, she knew she had to persuade Laguna to try out for the Met audition. “I approached her right after the concert about it,” Mitchell said. Laguna, who was unaware that the Met was auditioning singers in Mexico, needed little persuasion— she signed up immediately. “This was a great opportunity. It was what I had been dreaming about,” she said.

Joan Max Mitchell ’63, left, with Octavio Rivas.

Laguna took first place in that audition, then went on to win second place in the National Council regional competition held in New Orleans. In 2019, she was selected by the Met for the company’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, becoming the first Mexican woman to enter the program. The 25-year-old is continuing her professional studies in New York City. By summer 2020, she is scheduled to sing the role of Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme for the Metropolitan Opera at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.

“The moment I met Joan, my life changed,” Laguna said. “She’s like my fairy godmother. She helped make my dream come true.”

Mitchell’s relocation to San Miguel de Allende is a story in and of itself. She and her husband, Dan, were living in semi-retirement in Chambersburg, where she was volunteering for the Franklin County leadership program run by the Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce. Her task was to identify young professionals and develop them into community leaders. When she sought program candidates from the area’s growing Hispanic community, she was unsuccessful. “I decided that if I spoke their language, maybe I would be able to do better,” she said.

Denis Velez, Laguna, Ambassador Christopher Landau, Gamaliel Reynoso and Efrain Corralejo after a performance for the new ambassador in August 2019.

A friend recommended the Spanish language schools in San Miguel de Allende— a town the Mitchells had never heard of. “My husband and I came to San Miguel de Allende for one month in 2008 [to take Spanish lessons],” Mitchell said. “In 2009, we came for two months. In 2010, we bought an apartment, still thinking we would be here only seasonally. In 2012, we sold almost everything we owned in the U.S.A. and moved here permanently. [It was] not an entirely rational decision, but I somehow knew that San Miguel was where I belonged.”

Mitchell, an opera lover since the age of 10 when a “doting uncle” began taking her to performances, soon found her niche volunteering for local music organizations in San Miguel de Allende, which has been home to opera productions since the 1870s. She worked as a logistics coordinator for a summer music festival and helped place members of opera casts and crews with host families for ProMusica San Miguel de Allende. Later she became a fundraising consultant for the San Miguel Instituto de Bel Canto, an intensive month-long workshop for young Mexican opera singers. Mitchell’s involvement in music reached a turning point in 2014 when she and Dan hosted a 27-year old opera tenor, Octavio Rivas, a finalist in the Opera San Miguel Concurso—a privately funded national competition for Mexican opera singers held each year in San Miguel de Allende. “He was the one who transformed me from opera spectator to opera activist,” Mitchell said. Rivas had received little support from his family in pursuing an opera career. “He was my wake-up call, the beginning of my determination to do whatever I could to prevent genuinely talented young Mexican singers from being denied the opportunity to fulfill their talent,” she wrote.

Jennifer Velasco, Gamaliel Reynoso and Jacinta

Through Rivas, Mitchell met Michael Sylvester, who had co-founded the San Miguel Instituto de Bel Canto after retiring from a 25-year career as a tenor soloist at the Met. Sylvester knew that the Met had been looking for a Mexican audition site for the past two decades but hadn’t succeeded. In 2017, Sylvester convinced Met officials to try San Miguel de Allende as an audition site for young singers and then asked Mitchell to become the director of the new program. “So I didn’t really choose the job—it chose me,” Mitchell said. “I had declined invitations by other music organizations here. I was in San Miguel to retire! I needed my husband’s blessing to take this on. He said, ‘You need to do this … and I will help you.’ ”

In order to set up and pay for the auditions, Mitchell needed to raise an initial $30,000—she exceeded that amount by $5,000. She put together a nine-member team drawn from U.S. expatriate and Mexican residents of San Miguel. “It was important to establish a true partnership with our Mexican counterparts. In the Mexican culture, family and church come first; philanthropy isn’t always a priority,” she said. “It was important to get them invested in the future of these young singers.”

Mitchell’s career in the United States had prepared her well for the job. After she graduated from Wilson with a bachelor’s degree in French, she received graduate degrees in French, education and information science from Harvard University and the University of Pittsburgh. She taught at Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon Universities and the St. Edumund’s Academy in Pittsburgh. Then she served 17 years as a university library administrator before turning to fundraising at Georgetown University, where she was director of development for student affairs. After seven years there, she became the vice president for university advancement at Marymount University of Virginia, retiring in 1999.

Efrain Corralejo performs in January 2019.

Mitchell came out of retirement in 2001 to become Wilson’s vice president for advancement at the request of then-college President Lorna Edmundson. “I retired for good in 2003,” Mitchell joked. She began working in a volunteer capacity on nonprofit fundraising projects, including Chambersburg’s drive to restore the historic Capitol Theatre.

Mitchell points to her Wilson education as the bedrock for her success. “The important thing we learned at Wilson was that we could do anything we put our minds to,” she said. “I’ve taken on a lot of challenges and when I take on a challenge, it succeeds. I credit Wilson for giving me that confidence.”

So thanks to her efforts, the Met held its first auditions in San Miguel on Nov. 8, 2018, attracting 34 singers from all across Mexico. After that success, Mitchell was named president of the newly formed San Miguel MetOpera Trust. The program’s second audition, held in November 2019, attracted 40 more singers.

Mitchell’s work with the young singers doesn’t end with the auditions. She helps them with their next level of regional competition, securing visas and making travel and lodging arrangements. She has made excellent contacts with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to help with obtaining visas. The current American ambassador, Christopher Landau, and his staff are frequent guests at concerts hosted by the San Miguel MetOpera Trust.

Mitchell has been invaluable in recruiting singers in Mexico, according to Met Executive Director of National Council Auditions Melissa Wegner. “We are a volunteer-driven organization, so the Met’s National Council truly could not do this without volunteers like Joan,” said Wegner. “Joan worked tirelessly to start the Mexico District and set the foundation for its lasting success. She is so committed to providing a pathway to career success for these talented singers and personally helps see that their needs are met whenever possible. This is above and beyond the mandate of our organization, but speaks to Joan’s persistence and passion.” Mitchell believes it’s important for young Mexican singers to get exposure by singing in venues outside of their own country. “I think for Americans, getting to hear and see a Mexican opera singer may be a very different experience from what their expectations are for most Mexican immigrants,” she said. “Opera is not something that currently has a wide popular appeal in America, but I’m hoping these singers find an audience.”

“Joan is with you every step of the way,” said 26-year-old Efrain Corralejo, a tenor and one of the three finalists from San Miguel’s first audition. “She has even helped find me coaching assistance.” When Corralejo was traveling in the U.S. auditioning for parts, “my husband and I personally underwrote an hour with a coach in New York City and two more hours with the same coach when he was in Mexico City” to prepare him for Met auditions, Mitchell said. “I like to think it made a difference.”

Corralejo began his singing career in the children’s church choir in his hometown of Leon. When he was 8 years old, his cousin gave him a recording of a Three Tenors concert, which included the late Luciano Pavarotti’s signature aria, “Nessun Dorma.” “That inspired my dream to become an opera singer,” he said.

Since the San Miguel audition, Corralejo has sung concerts in Pueblo, Colo., Pittsburgh and Detroit, and he has recently been accepted in the master’s program at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “After the [Met] audition, I started thinking and training not as just a national singer, but as an international opera singer,” he said. “I want to be a solid tenor performing in the opera centers of the world. Thanks to Joan, I am seeing my dream for the future come true.”

The Metropolitan Opera Auditions

The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions program seeks to discover promising young opera singers and assist them in their career development. The all-volunteer program, which began in 1954 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, holds annual auditions every year in 42 districts and 12 regions throughout the United States, Canada and now Mexico.

The competition is open to singers between the ages of 20 and 30 and is held in four stages: district, regional, semi-final and final competitions. Each stage is judged by a panel of representatives from the Metropolitan Opera. Winners from the 42 district competitions compete in regionals, and then the winners travel to New York City, where they compete in the national semi-finals on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

Approximately 10 semi-finalists are chosen for the final competition at the Met. The five top winners are awarded a grand prize of $15,000 each, and the remaining finalists receive $5,000. Some well-known opera stars who have been finalists have included Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Samuel Ramey, Renée Fleming and Michael Fabiano.

San Miguel de Allende

For the better part of five centuries, San Miguel de Allende flourished— first as an outpost for the Mexican silver mining industry; then as a textile and agricultural center and, in more recent times, as an artists colony, tourist attraction and retirement community.

Located about 170 miles northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende was founded in 1542 as a mission by Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel, for whom the city is named. The discovery of silver in the area in the mid-1500s turned San Miguel into a thriving commercial center. By the early 1700s, it had a population of close to 30,000 (more than New York City at the time) and its combination of neoclassical and baroque architecture reflected the city’s wealth and prestige.

Two early leaders of the Mexican War of Independence, Juan Aldama and Ignacio Allende, were born in the city. In 1810, both helped form an insurgent army and made San Miguel the first Mexican town to gain its independence from Spain. The city added Allende to its name after he died in the war.

The city was a cultural center early on, and in 1873 a concert hall opened with a performance by the most prominent opera soprano of Mexico at that time, Angela Peralta, who subsequently lent her name to the Angela Peralta Theater. But by the early 20th century, the area had been decimated by an influenza pandemic and many of the city’s buildings fell vacant. In 1937, American artist and writer Stirling Dickinson arrived in San Miguel de Allende. Together with Peruvian intellectual, author and painter Felipe Cossio del Pomar, Dickinson established the Escuela Universitaria Bellas Artes art school, which still exists today. In the 1940s, Dickinson helped Cossio del Pomar establish what became the Instituto Allende art school. Despite the rural location, both schools found success after World War II, when they attracted U.S. veterans studying under the G.I. Bill, which permitted study abroad. Enrollment at the schools rose and the town’s cultural reputation attracted tourists.

More artists and writers settled in the city, including José Chávez Morado and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who both taught painting at Bellas Artes. Many of the American veterans who studied in San Miguel would later come back to retire.

RELATED: A Portrait of the President as a Young Man Hands-On Conservation Project Trans(m)it